After several recent outbreaks of norovirus in which hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers on major cruise lines became ill, the now legendary cruise ship "mummy tummy" is back in the news.
On the positive side, this gives us an opportunity to remind parents and children (who are especially susceptible to serious side effects of the disease like dehydration) how to avoid it on their next seaborne adventure.
What is Norovirus & Why You Should Avoid It
"Noroviruses (genus Norovirus, family Caliciviridae) are a group of related, single-stranded RNA, non-enveloped viruses that cause acute gastroenteritis in humans," says the CDC. The most common symptoms of acute gastroenteritis are diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain — all symptoms that families on vacation should especially try to avoid.
According to the CDC, norovirus is recognized as the leading cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States. It is easily and quickly spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, or contact with items that infected travelers have touched.
How Does Norovirus Spread on Cruise Ships?
Day care centers, resort and cruise child care programs, and nurseries are notorious breeding grounds for norovirus and other infections because children are in such close proximity to one another. New preventive measures are being developed daily. For example, the innovative Disney Cruise Line has designed fun, automated hand washing stations in their onboard children’s programming areas that ensure kids wash thoroughly when entering or leaving the play areas. This video shows how they work.
Another culprit in the norovirus war is the buffet line: food that has been exposed to air and handled by others may carry a higher risk of infection, which is why cruise ship passengers are seeing more servers behind glass barriers than ever before.
Clean Hands: Best Defense Against Norovirus
"Since the safety and well-being of our guests and crew is our top priority aboard all Disney ships," notes Disney Cruise Line spokesperson Charles B. Stovall, "we employ a number of methods to assist in guest sanitation."
On a recent inaugural cruise of the new Disney Fantasy, I saw hand washing guidelines in all public restrooms and staterooms. In contrast to my last cruise (aboard the Disney Dream) where foam hand sanitizer dispensers were prominent, the ship's crew were distributing hand wipes to guests as they entered eating establishments.
How Often Should You Wash Hands?
Washing hands is critical to controlling the spread of germs, bacteria and viruses. The Mayo Clinic recommends that travelers wash their hands before preparing food or eating; before treating wounds, giving medicine, or caring for a sick or injured person; and before inserting or removing contact lenses.
Travelers must again wash their hands after the preparation of raw foods or meat; handling diapers or using the toilet; petting or handling animals; blowing the nose and touching garbage of any kind.
How Can I Prevent My Family from Getting Sick?
Limit Your Exposure to the Illness. The most important method of prevention in a closed environment like a cruise ship, is to limit exposure of healthy passengers and crew to sick individuals and their germs. In that regard, any family member with symptoms of fever, nausea or diarrhea should avoid close contact with anyone, and should not prepare food for others (wait at least 48 hours for symptoms to pass). All their laundry and linens should be thoroughly cleaned.
Keep in mind that seemingly healthy relatives traveling with you, and other "well" passengers can still be contagious.
Eat carefully. According to National Health Services United Kingdom, oysters have been known to carry the norovirus, so they advise travelers to avoid eating shellfish (unless you know the source), as well as raw, unwashed produce.
And we'll say it again: Keep Hands Clean. Hygiene experts stress that soap and water are as effective as foam hand sanitizers or antimicrobial wipes or towelettes, and portable cleanliness tools are much more convenient for travelers. Look for products that contain a high percentage of alcohol which are OK for children and adolescents, too. Remember to make sure the sanitizer completely dries before you touch anything.
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